"Now we can close the chapter. We need to build a team again." These were MS Dhoni's words after India won the 2011 World Cup. The remnants of the class of 2003, who had suffered the shock of the 2007 first-round exit, had run their course by 2011 in his eyes.
The absence of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh in the list of 30 probables for the 2015 World Cup marks the formal closing of that chapter. Somewhere you knew this was likely to be a formality, that a replay was unlikely. None of the five has played an ODI in 2014. Zaheer has not since August 2012, Harbhajan since as far back as June 2011. And barring an injury to an eventually shortlisted player, and extraordinary form shown by one of the five, none of them is going to Australia and New Zealand.
Sachin Tendulkar has retired. Sreesanth has been banned for life. Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel have drifted so far back in memory it is hard to believe they are still playing domestic cricket. Yusuf Pathan and Piyush Chawla have fallen somewhere in the crevice between potential and performance. The class of 2011 has been well and truly disbanded.
Only four have made it through to the 2015 list. Of them, Suresh Raina and R Ashwin had bit roles in 2011. Virat Kohli was the future steadily becoming the present. Dhoni was not there in 2003, but he went through the humiliation of 2007, and is the last remaining link to that chapter he talked about in 2011. For the rest, all we have for now are memories.
Sehwag started the 2011 World Cup with 175 against Bangladesh. Gambhir ended it with 97 in the final. Yuvraj, soon to go undergo treatment for cancer, carried India on his shoulders in between with bat and ball. Zaheer gave us the knuckle ball and took the most wickets in the tournament. With young Ashwin a popular choice for playing ahead of him, Harbhajan came out India's most economical bowler.
The second ODI double-hundred. Six sixes in an over. Probably the most under-rated but significant innings in a World Cup final. Sehwag, Yuvraj and Gambhir have made 21,840 ODI runs among themselves. Zaheer and Harbhajan have taken a collective 541 ODI wickets. Yuvraj has 111, Sehwag 96. Staggering as these numbers are, they were also a major part of the narrative of Indian one-day cricket for more than a decade. They took the class of 2011 that one last step ahead of the class of 2003. They had fallen at the final hurdle eight years ago, they were not going to let that happen again. They finished under Dhoni what had begun under Ganguly.
Four of these five had made their international debuts by 2000. By the time the World Cup came to India, they weren't young anymore. The class of 2011 was possibly one of the most unathletic to win a global tournament. The combination of Zaheer, Nehra and Munaf is as big a fielding liability as your pace attack can become. The senior batsmen were not quick either. India were expected to be run ragged and almost lost after posting 338 against England in Bangalore before escaping with a tie.
"We could have defended this total if we had a better fielding side," Dhoni had said bluntly, "but we have to make do with what we have got." And make do they did, giving it everything in the knockouts. Ageing bodies threw themselves around on the field, saving singles, cutting off boundaries, so much that the might of the Australian line-up was restricted to 260 in the quarter-final. It led coach Gary Kirsten to say it was the best fielding performance he had seen from the Indian team in his three years with them.
After the semi-final win against Pakistan, Dhoni said all he hoped for now was for his tired, not-so-young men to hold up for one more game. "After that, even if some of the cars fall down, it is okay," he had said, using one of his automobile metaphors.
The cars drove through the biggest match of them all without stalling all right, and then, one by one, they started to sputter to a stop.
The Hyderabad Test against Australia in March 2013 was the previous time Harbhajan and Sehwag played for India. Ashwin took five wickets in Australia's second innings, Ravindra Jadeja three. Harbhajan, considerably underbowled, could not manage a single wicket in ten overs against a side that had no clue against spin throughout the series.
Sehwag, uncharacteristically, tried biding his time in search of some form. On 6, he nicked his 19th delivery behind. He did not get a second innings as Australia crumbled.
Gambhir had a woeful time on Test comeback in England in August this year with 25 runs in four attempts. His second innings at The Oval lasted 19 balls, just like Sehwag's had. A suicidal dash after plenty of jitters ended in a run-out for 3.
Zaheer's speed dipped to the early 120s often in New Zealand in February 2014, but he kept running in, not lacking in effort. Out of nowhere, he reduced the hosts to 52 for 3 in the second innings in Wellington before Brendon McCullum made 302 and kept India on the field for 210 overs. Zaheer, 35 then, bowled 51 of those, the most he had bowled in an innings in 92 Tests. He is past 36 now, and working his way through yet another injury.
Yuvraj's struggle has been the most palpable. His fight to again be the player he once was culminated in an excruciatingly laboured effort in the 2014 World T20 final. He hasn't played for India since. Perhaps he never will again.
Perhaps none of the five will. They are among the finest players India has ever produced. There have not been any farewells or retirements yet, and no one will grudge any of the five the luxury of the former. There has just been a gradual, seemingly irreversible decline. Perhaps this is how the chapter was supposed to close. On the immortal class of 2011.